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Monthly Archives: January 2017

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Three extraordinary African-American women work in segregated Hampton Virginia to assist NASA in its endeavors to put a man in space. Along the way, they confront everyday casual racism, structural impediments imposed because of their color and gender, and the general pressures of life. There are sweeping moments, a few speeches, some comic relief, and some genuinely tender exchanges (the best bits are between Octavia Spencer and Kirsten Dunst, respectively, underling and her supervisor, as they negotiate their roles, hidden frustrations and biases). At its best, this is a pleasant and occasionally winning semi historical drama. At its worst, it is Hallmark Channel tripe, uneven (the insistence on telling three stories short-changes all of them; there is just too much going on, giving the characters short-shrift) and unoriginal.

It took me a little time to find the analog to this picture, but eventually, I settled on it. Hidden Figures is very much like another inferior film that was all the buzz at Oscar time but proved entirely underwhelming in the viewing: The Imitation Game . That film was loaded with melodrama and schmaltz, and it too played fast and loose with the history in an effort to elicit an emotional response that, upon reflection, seemed the product of manipulation rather than honest presentation. In the process, it jettisoned a much more interesting reality – that protagonist Alan Turing’s homosexuality was not as closeted and did not create the frailty depicted in the film – to serve a well-worn narrative, the long-suffering, noble and unheralded hero, maligned for his essence whilst saving England from the Nazis.  Snooooorrrrreeeee.

In researching the fact versus fiction aspects of this film, I was struck by the following in History v. Hollywood:

Did Katherine Johnson feel the segregation of the outside world while working at NASA?

No. “I didn’t feel the segregation at NASA, because everybody there was doing research,” says the real Katherine G. Johnson. “You had a mission and you worked on it, and it was important to you to do your job…and play bridge at lunch. I didn’t feel any segregation. I knew it was there, but I didn’t feel it.” Even though much of the racism coming from Katherine’s coworkers in the movie seems to be largely made up (in real life she claimed to be treated as a peer), the movie’s depiction of state laws regarding the use of separate bathrooms, buses, etc. was very real. African-American computers had also been put in the segregated west section of the Langley campus and were dubbed the “West Computers.” -WHROTV Interview

In Margot Lee Shetterly’s book, Hidden Figures, she writes about a cardboard sign on one of the tables in the back of NASA Langley’s cafeteria during the early 1940s that read, “COLORED COMPUTERS.” This particularly struck a nerve with the women because it seemed especially ridiculous and demeaning in a place where research and intellectual ability was focused on much more than skin color. It was Miriam Mann, a member of the West Computers, who finally decided to remove the sign, and when an unknown hand would make a new sign a few days later, Miriam would shove that sign into her purse too. Eventually, the signs stopped reappearing at some point during the war.

Now, juxtapose this extremely interesting recitation of what actually happened from Johnson with the cookie cutter incidents used in the film. A colored only coffee pot – untrue.  Johnson having to go to the bathroom in a separate place – nope, she used the unmarked whites bathroom. Being mistaken for a janitor on her first day working with a made up character played by Kevin Costner – made up.  The smashing of a “Colored Only” sign with a sledgehammer by Costner – untrue (and at the expense of the great story about the cardboard signs so persistently and surreptitiously discarded by the real life figure).

So, the real Johnson states that she didn’t really even feel segregation in her workplace yet the screenwriters make it a factor in every single aspect of her work life. These decisions are bad decisions for two reasons. First, we have seen all of the standard tropes before. They tell us nothing new. They are boring. And they are so stale they feel counterfeit.  Second, and most importantly, they substitute Katherine Johnson’s real story, which sounds interesting as hell and very nuanced, with this comforting and comfortable pap written by these two:

(Writers of Mean Girls 2 and St. Vincent)

As with The Imitation Game, everyone applauded at the end, so, there’s that.

 

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imageA man and his girlfriend attend a dinner party held in the Los Angeles hills by his ex-wife and her new husband for their coterie of friends from the days of their marriage, a marriage that ended two years prior due to a tragic accident.  I will tell you no more save for the following: this is a tense, sharp and often Hitchcockian thriller, it is currently on Netflix streaming, and you should read nothing about it before watching.

Viggo Mortensen, a survivalist and Noam Chomsky acolyte (not a snide dig using Chomsky; Chomsky is literally the spiritual and intellectual leader guide to Mortensen’s character), lives in the woods with his six children where he home schools and nature trains them (in the first scene, his teen son jumps a deer, stabs it for dinner and is rewarded with “man” designation).  Their mother, however, is away, battling mental illness.  When she passes, the modern Swiss Family Robinson treks to the home of her father (Frank Langella) who is the bad guy because he has dough, lives on a golf course and wants to take the children away from Viggo.  Along the way, Viggo condescends to his sister about what dullards her two boys are; prattles on about the empty consumerist nature of the United States; and sits the kids down at a diner, dangling awesome food possibilities in front of them, only to leave in high nutritionist dudgeon.

Mortensen, who is nominated for best actor, does the best with a character who is constantly whipsawed between rock-solid moral assuredness and deep doubt, such that at best, he seems like a mercurial preener and at worst, a total dick.  He constantly craps on the mores and standards of his sister and in-laws, only to give half-assed apologies, and his crashing of his wife’s funeral is an exercise in narcissism that makes any further action on his part highly suspect.  The kids are brilliant and self-sufficient but so underdeveloped that when they start to share their take on their current condition, it all comes from nowhere.

The family is laughably Hollywoodized – the girls don’t have hairy armpits, the kids don’t stink (they should) and the tenets of their creed are easily discarded for a few cheap yuks.

The ending is gruesome schmaltz, a family sing-along/send off for Mom to a tribal acoustic version of Sweet Child  O’ Mine.

I like this family’s version much better.

Denzel Washington’s film adaptation of the Broadway play is expertly cast, and his performance as the imposing and haunted patriarch Troy Maxon is both mammoth and intricate.  Washington’s turn is equaled by the performances put in by Viola Davis (as his long-suffering, devoted and stoic wife), Mykelti Williamson (as his mentally-impaired brother), Stephen Henderson (as his lifelong friend) and the rest of the cast.  August Wilson’s screenplay, adapted from his own stage play, crackles with raw and poetic renderings of regret, loss and anger.  As Maxon stalks his family and curses the sky from his tiny rowhouse backyard, he seems to become smaller and more vulnerable in each scene.  His ethos of “trust no one, owe no one” becomes more minimizing as the film progresses.

All that said, this tale of a familial Goliath negotiating his lost opportunity, youth and vigor, as well as his brutal past and his current-day demons, has a few slow spots, and while Washington’s direction is capable, there is no compelling reason to see what is essentially a stage play in the movie house.   Wait for DVD/streaming and enjoy.

A funny and wry comedy about an improv group in New York City that is splintered when one of its members makes it to “the show”, a stand-in for Saturday Night Live called Weekend Live. The elevation exposes fissures within the group, eventually sealing its doom . Nonetheless, through the process of promotion and disintegration, the members realize how integral the group is/was to their lives and how their involvement fits into their ambitions.

This is a sweet movie, written and directed by Mike Birbiglia, who also stars as one of the improv group members. Some of the drama is beyond the talents of the actors, almost all of them are immediately recognizable from some Comedy Central or other endeavor, and it is on occasion a little gooey. But, otherwise, this is good clean fun, bettered by a biting, almost cruel caricature of Lorne Michaels as the head honcho at Weekend Live.

My son and daughter have impeccable taste in films, so the other night, I bowed to their wishes and watched Captain America: Civil War, which was streaming on Netflix.  I do not want to put the recommendation squarely on their shoulders.  A colleague who has his own movie podcast and my nephew, who are much more attuned to this genre than me, also dug the movie.  It rates a 90% on rottentomatoes.com.

What am I missing?

Some background.  Of Captain America, I wrote, “All characters are boring and stock, particularly Evans, who has the face and demeanor of soft butter. A lot of stuff happens after his transformation, but full disclosure – we turned it off after an hour.”

Of Marvel’s The Avengers, “The picture is dizzying, occasionally funny, well-paced but really, really long and immediately forgettable.”

Of Avengers: Age of Ultron, “Best part. A friend of Captain America asking if he’s found a place to live in Brooklyn yet, and Captain America responding that he doesn’t think he can afford it.  Because what’s missing from these films is the Avengers at a cocktail party.  Full disclosure: turned off at the halfway point.”

This flick did not represent a reversal in the trend.  You have scads of super heroes running around either intoning gravely over the issue of the day (should they or should they not place themselves under the command and oversight of . . . the U.N.?) and when they are not doing that, they are cracking wise.  They line up against each other and meet on an airport tarmac where they have a CGI rumble, a scrum made so  dull by their invincibility (after all, kill Ant Man and that’s like burning $650 million)  I was reminded of a time when the aforesaid nephew was playing a first person shooter video game (Doom?) and he was just tearing it up, knife through butter.  I was impressed by his prowess until I noticed that he wasn’t even getting nicked, despite being shot repeatedly.  It was then he informed me that he had a cheat, or a code, that allowed him to traipse through the game, unhurt.

For him, it was the journey, a pleasing way to pass time and explore the world of the game makers.  I was all like, “Kill or die!”

And I imagine that is a generational difference that explains my view of the film.

Now get the hell off my lawn.

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A pointless, narrativeless, droning visual feast. Terrence Malick’s internal monologues were sometimes overwrought and brazenly lyrical in The Thin Red Line and The New World but at least those films were, respectively,  a World War II drama and a historical venture into the unknown, where the inner thoughts of men in and at the edge of peril could naturally meander through subjects such as longing, love, fear, madness and the utter beauty and danger of their foreign surroundings.  Knight of Cups is about a wayward Hollywood screenwriter (Christian Bale) who floats through the LA scene (mainly, the beach, parties, photo shoots, piers, hotel rooms populated by various attractive women, inexplicable rooftops, and the dreaded blue lit strip joint), a chic but shabby male model zombie. His inner monologue – heavy musings about lost family, his quest, his ruined life, and a lot of stuff that simply makes no sense whatsoever – rarely rises above the banalities of a Calvin Klein Obsession commercial.  The inner monologues of other characters – his father (Brian Dennehy), a party host (Antonio Banderas), a former wife (Cate Blanchette), various lovers – are no more compelling.  Vapid and self indulgent, though pretty and populated by stars eager to be part of Malick’s experiment.